Gay Mormons challenge church

Maverick leaders are trying to welcome gay Mormons back to the LDS -- and in some wards, it might be working

Published June 11, 2012 7:45PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jim Urquhart)
(Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

When a group of 300 Mormons in church clothes marched in Salt Lake City’s Pride Parade earlier this month, it was the latest indication that — even for gay Mormons — it gets better.

For years, gay and lesbian members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have defected from the fold, entered into “mixed orientation” marriages, or committed themselves to lives of celibacy. Some started same-sex relationships and were expelled from the church. An untold number took their own lives.

The church’s policy of banning same-sex relationships -- while welcoming celibate gay members -- has been firmly in place since the 1990s. Yet in the past year, a growing number of gay Mormons have gone public and challenged the Law of Chastity. In April, an unofficial student group at Brigham Young University called Understanding Same Gender Attraction released a video for Dan Savage’s online “It Gets Better” campaign. Several months earlier, Mitch Mayne was appointed secretary of his San Francisco ward, marking the first time in recent memory that an openly gay man was “called to serve” in Mormon lingo. And in the past year, the nonprofit Mormon Stories discussion group hosted a conference series on gay Mormons. (Mormon Stories is not affiliated with the LDS church.)

At the most recent Mormon Stories gathering in Washington, D.C., in April, Mormon gay rights advocate Carol Lynn Pearson summed up the mood: “The eagle has landed. The 100th monkey has appeared. It’s the tipping point, and we won’t go back.”

What’s changed, however, is not the LDS church’s attitude toward gays, but gay attitudes toward the LDS church. Now, perhaps more than ever, gay Mormons -- or “Mohos” as some call themselves -- with the help of a handful of maverick local church leaders, are seeking to bridge the divide between their religious and sexual identities. And this is happening as Mitt Romney, the most prominent Mormon political figure, runs for president, bringing a new spotlight to the church's policies -- and controversial history -- on social issues.

The major shift for some gay Mormons came in the aftermath of Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that barred same-sex marriages in California. The LDS church's financial support was instrumental in passing Prop. 8, but many Mormons saw the church’s advocacy on the issue as a massive public relations blunder. Not since the church’s ban on black men in the priesthood did Mormonism look so hostile to a minority group.

In the past four years, church leaders in California have been doing damage control on Prop. 8, reaching out to gay and lesbian Mormons who abandoned the church in the wake of the initiative. The Bay Ward, where Mayne serves as executive secretary, is ground zero for this campaign.

Mayne converted to Mormonism as a teenager, but drifted away from the church in part because his sexuality conflicted with Mormon teachings. When Mayne was in his 20s, he began to revisit Mormonism, eventually joining a ward — or local church — in Oakland. “I did that knowing there was going to come a time when I would have to reconcile my orientation with how I understood my faith,” he said.

After Prop. 8, a local Mormon leader asked Mayne to spearhead a speaking tour in 15 California locales aimed at “helping heal the wounds” of the initiative. Mayne’s project garnered the attention of the bishop of the Bay Ward, Don Fletcher, who approached Mayne about serving in the church’s governing council.

Mayne’s appointment in August 2011 was met with skepticism by some in the gay community, who contend that he is helping the church deflect criticism on its record on gay rights without having to change its policies. But Mayne said his presence is making a real difference: About a dozen Mohos who left over the years are now back in the pews. “It seems every other week or so there is a new gay person walking through the doors of the chapel, seeking to come home,” said Jett Atwood, a married lesbian in the Bay Ward who returned this year. “And they are finding open arms welcoming them.”

For devout gay Mormons, one of the most vexing questions is whether they can or should have a sex life. The Mormon Law of Chastity prohibits premarital sex for heterosexuals and sex, period, for gays. Church-going Mormons have periodic “worthiness interviews” with their bishops to ascertain their eligibility for a “temple recommend,” a wallet-size card that allows adults entry into the most sacred LDS sanctuaries. It is during these interviews that Mormons are asked about the details of their intimate lives; if a Mormon is flouting the Law of Chastity, his or her bishop is bound to find out.

Depending upon the circumstance, breaking the Law of Chastity is grounds for excommunication. But since the regulation is enforced at the local level, some bishops are more lenient than others in their approach. At the Bay Ward, said Mayne, church leaders have no interest in conducting a witch hunt against sexually active gay Mormons. “You have to apply the rule equally,” he said. “You have to go after straight people, too.”

As a member of the bishopric, however, Mayne must follow the Law of Chastity. By happenstance, Mayne had ended a long-term relationship with another man shortly before he was called to serve. His newly single status made him eligible for a leadership role.

“People have asked me, ‘Are you going to commit to a life of celibacy?’” Mayne said. “I cannot predict what I will or will not do in the future from a personal relationship perspective. The only thing I can say is I have always strived to live my life with an understanding of my savior’s will for me.”

Every observant gay Mormon, it seems, has a different take on how to navigate the Law of Chastity. These varying opinions were on display at the Mormon Stories conference held at the Community of Christ Church in Washington, D.C.

“I try not to be promiscuous,” said Tristan Holley, who presented at a session on church-going gays. “I don’t think members of the church should live with boyfriends or girlfriends before they get married.” Randall Thacker, a newly returned Mormon who went through years of reparative therapy, said he told his bishop: “I believe I can learn more in this life if I have a relationship than if I am celibate.”

Jared Fronk, a conference attendee, was in a celibate long-distance relationship with his fiancé, a government contractor in Afghanistan. He was technically living the Law of Chastity, but his bishop saw things differently. In April 2011, he was excommunicated. “We are concerned that your apparent happiness might deceive people into thinking that being gay is OK,” the panel of local Mormon leaders told him at his excommunication hearing, he said.

Fronk hasn’t returned to his ward. But for others at the conference, excommunication didn’t end their relationship with the LDS church. John Burlison was excommunicated in 1981 after he proclaimed at a Mormon priesthood meeting that LDS forefather Joseph Smith was not a prophet. Yet after three decades away, one Sunday last year he found himself at a ward in Kensington, Md. “I am apostate, excommunicated, gay and atheist,” he said. “I am welcome in the Kensington Ward.”

Burlison said that his excommunicated status prevents him from speaking in front of the congregation, paying his tithing or holding any callings. But as a married gay man, he would rather stay excommunicated than leave his husband to officially rejoin the church. “It gives me a tremendous amount of freedom and sometimes I need that freedom,” he said. “It can be a place of strength.”

Adam White, a Brigham Young University sophomore who appeared in the “It Gets Better” video, said that he hopes to marry another man someday. But if he can’t find a ward with a sympathetic bishop, then he will consider excommunication. “I feel close enough to the Mormon Church that I would still want to attend,” he said. Another option is to enter into a celibate life partnership with a man. “There isn’t too much precedent for that,” he conceded. “It would be a question of whether your bishop accepted you.”

The Mormon prohibition on gay relationships is a relatively new development for the young faith. According to D. Michael Quinn, who was excommunicated from the church in 1993 for his writings on LDS history, homosexuality was tacitly accepted among early Mormons. Utah’s Mormon leadership saw itself in staunch opposition to broader American culture, and it was slow to catch on to changing secular mores about homosexuality.

For instance, while other states adopted sodomy laws from the late 1700s on, Utah refrained from passing one until 1867. Even then, Mormon lawmakers were lenient in sentencing offenders. But all this changed in the early 1900s, when the LDS church began to seek legitimacy as a mainstream American religion, a struggle that intensified in the 1950s and continues today.

Mormon leaders began to speak out against homosexuality, claiming in the 1960s and 1970s that it was a curable disease, caused by masturbation. But in the last 20 years, as secular attitudes on the topic have changed, Mormon leaders have softened their stance toward gays and lesbians, adopting a “love the sinner, hate the sin” policy of other mainstream Christian churches.

Official church guidelines have changed slightly. As documented by Mormon political commentator Joanna Brooks, in 2010 the LDS Church struck its prohibition on homosexual thoughts and feelings from the Church Handbook of Instructions for clerical leaders, leaving intact the ban on gay sex.

Mormon officials, meanwhile, have conveyed divergent views on homosexuality. At the August 2010 General Conference gathering of the LDS church, Boyd K. Packer, a senior leader in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — an upper echelon of Mormon leadership — said that homosexuality is not an inborn trait. "Not so! Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone?”

Yet a few weeks later, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, another top official, seemed to cushion Packer’s statement by saying that the church doesn’t know the cause of homosexuality. “God loves all his children, and because he loves us, we can trust him and keep his commandments.”

For Mormon gay rights advocates, the inconsistent rhetoric is evidence that there are deep disagreements about the status of gays at the highest level of Mormon leadership. “I think that church members get mixed messages, because church leaders are sending them mixed messages,” said Kaimipono Wenger, a professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and an amateur Mormon historian. “The difference on Prop. 8 and Mitch Mayne is because the organization doesn’t know what it wants to do on the issue.”

As far as gay Mormons and their supporters are concerned, staying in the pews makes them a force to be reckoned with. “Just like Joseph Smith, I’m going to piss off the religious establishment of my day,” said Hugo Salinas of the gay Mormon group Affirmation at the Mormon Stories conference. “And that’s OK.”

By Naomi Zeveloff

Naomi Zeveloff's work has appeared in alternative newsweeklies, political news sites and blogs in Salt Lake City, Colorado Springs, Denver, Dallas and New York City.

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